Beatrix Potter, scientist

The acclaimed children's book author also was an ahead-of-her-time botanist

Manasee Wagh
Apr 5, 2007
The Lake District in northwest England is a verdant expanse of rolling grassy countryside, dotted with trees and lakes, and surrounded by mountains. This idyllic landscape inspired Beatrix Potter to craft her famous children's book illustrations about Peter Rabbit and other woodland creatures, but it also fueled her other, less well-known, passion -- botany. Potter did a lot more than draw the natural world. She was the first person in Britain to speculate in a scientific paper that lichens are symbiotic life forms, conducted experiments in her kitchen, and recorded in detail her observations of algal and fungal properties.
"What is impressive about her work is that despite Miss Potter's lack of scientific training, she was one of very few Victorians engaged in experimental observations on fungi," says Nicholas Money, professor of botany at Miami University."She was an exceptional botanist when women weren't allowed to be," says Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, published in January this year. "And she had the pluck to stick to her theories, even when the professionals dismissed her."Women of Potter's upper class status were expected to stay home and give tea parties, but Potter found such prospects boring. She turned to painting, and became drawn to fungi. "She loved their colors and shapes and the fact that they appeared and disappeared in the ground," says Lear. At the age of 26, Potter began corresponding with a rural postman and enthusiastic naturalist named Charles McIntosh, who was interested in fungi. He promised to send Potter samples of new species he discovered by mail, so she could draw them. Throughout their long partnership, Potter drew detailed, accurate pictures of 350 fungi, mosses and spores, mailing one copy to McIntosh, and keeping one for her own records. With drawings she made from her observations of lichen, Potter believed she had evidence that the organism consisted of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and a photosynthetic partner, algae. In her zeal to find out the truth for herself, she cultivated both the algal cells and the fungal spores in her kitchen. Her observations of how the two partners joined to form one organism placed her in a small group of believers, including Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist, and Anton de Bary, an accomplished botanist who wrote an early textbook dealing with fungal biology. However, this symbiosis theory of lichen was unpopular in England at the time, and many scientists failed to take Potter seriously.Roy Watling, of the British Mycological Society, says Mary Noble, one of his former colleagues, stumbled upon Potter's drawings close to 15 years ago while sorting through bags filled with Potter's work. "Until then nobody knew about her work with spores," he says. Potter's illustrations captured details about fungi that had eluded other scientists at the time. For example, Potter drew the first record of the fungus Tremella simplex in Britain. She painted the fruiting bodies, the basidiospores, and all other parts at all ages in the fungus life cycle. "She drew everything she saw," says Watling.Looking at Potter's notes, Watling could see she was observing germinating spores close to every 20 minutes or so for her experiments. She drew these pictures in the late 19th century, says Watling, "but it wasn't until the 1920's and '30s people actually started describing these fungi." And it wasn't until the 1940s that others recognized the differences between closely related fungi that Potter saw nearly 40 years earlier, he adds.In April 1897, after painstaking preparation, Potter was ready to present her first and only paper, "Germination of the spores of the Agaricineae," to the Linnean Society of London. While there is no record of the paper's content, her notes and journal suggest that she described her experiments cultivating the germinating basidiospores and her in-depth observations. In a letter written prior to her paper submission, Potter said she grew 40 to 50 kinds of spores, but only submitted observations of A. velutipes (now known as Flammulina velutipes).However, women were not allowed to attend official Society meetings. Potter's paper was offered instead through a botanist at Kew Gardens, George Massee, a member of the Society. In her journal, which was published in 1966, she wrote about Linnean Society members' dismissive attitudes towards her work. Watling says Potter was not intimidated from continuing her work because of male opposition from the Linnean Society. "Her character would not have been put off by stodgy scientists," he says.The Society's scientists accepted her paper but asked her to conduct a little more work, which Potter planned to do. But her success in children's literature drew her attention away from science, and she never published her original 1897 manuscript. Soon, her talents in illustration began to overshadow her scientific success.Eventually, scientists began to appreciate Potter's contributions, and the Linnean Society held a meeting in her honor 100 years after she submitted her paper. Potter settled into life in the Lake District with her husband, later saving it from development by giving 4,000 acres (1620 hectares) of land to The National Trust in the UK. The largest collection of Potter's drawings, over 450 minutely detailed paintings, is in the Armitt collection in Cumbria, England.Manasee Wagh mail@the-scientist.comImage: Flammulina velutipes, a watercolor by Beatrix Potter, courtesy of the Armitt Collection.Editor's note (posted April 6): Due to a technical error, now corrected, an earlier version of this story contained a misquote.Links within this article:Beatrix Potter, animal drawings Money Lear, Beatrix Potter: A life in nature, January 2007. drawings Toma, "Genes that mediate symbiosis," The Scientist, June 27, 2002. Watling Society of London Potter, Beatrix Potter, a journal, October 2006. Potter